Published Humanitas, Volume XXI, No. 1, 1999
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) is widely regarded as one of the architects of the postwar conservative intellectual revival. The publication, in 1953, of his The Conservative Mind, a monumental 450-page history of conservative ideas from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot, dramatically shaped a nascent conservative intellectual movement then struggling for survival. Kirk’s rediscovery and articulation of a viable conservative tradition in the English-speaking world including the United States, during a period when the dominant ideological currents were markedly different, helped legitimize a neglected body of ideas. The book established its young author, then a Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) history professor, as a major intellectual force in American politics and letters.
Still only thirty-five and at the height of his intellectual and literary powers, Kirk then penned six more books in just four years: St. Andrews (1954), a history of the Scottish university town where he lived from 1948 to 1953 and where he wrote The Conservative Mind; A Program for Conservatives (1954); Academic Freedom (1955); Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956); The American Cause (1957); and The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (1957). Newsweek magazine took note of his achievements and hailed the rising young scholar as “one of the foremost intellectual spokesmen for the conservative position.” Time magazine, echoing this opinion, shortly thereafter warmly praised him as “a gifted and sorely needed spokesman” for American conservatism. “Kirk is no reactionary,” Time’s book reviewer insisted. He “is in fact considerably more liberal than many self-proclaimed liberals.” Alas, Kirk’s subsequent treatment by the establishment press would be far less sympathetic.
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